Esmé Valk (Schiphol): 'Improving Well-Being Is Complex, But Gratifying’

Esmé Valk (Schiphol): 'Improving Well-Being Is Complex, But Gratifying’
Esmé Valk has been CHRO of Royal Schiphol Group since September 2021. After leading the restructuring operation during the first months of the corona crisis, she is now working on recovery. The particular focus is on the well-being of employees, both those of Schiphol itself as well as employees of other parties operating at the airport. ‘I have the best HR job in the Netherlands, but it is also very complex.’

In the first months of the corona crisis, Schiphol had the appearance of a ghost town. Hardly any flights, hardly any visitors, hardly any activity at the otherwise lively airport. As of August 2019, Schiphol’s response to the corona crisis was the so-called Project Reset.
Esmé Valk was the project leader, at that time she had been employed by Schiphol for over four years as HR manager. When Project Reset was completed in August 2021, Valk succeeded HR director Heleen Kuijten with the task to assist in building a stronger, better, and more sustainable Schiphol. Restoring the magic at Schiphol, as it is called on her LinkedIn page.

How do you look back on Project Reset?
‘We had to act quickly, since at that time we were at 98 percent fewer flight movements than normal. At the same time, we also knew that a standard reorganization using the ‘cheese slicer method’ was not an option, since we knew we would have to be able to scale up again rapidly. We tried - entirely in the spirit of intelligent lockdown - to tackle Project Reset in a smart way. So, we relied heavily on all kinds of efficiency-boosting measures: think of merging departments, such as the real estate department and the commercial department with retail spaces and centralizing all kinds of data. We are still reaping the benefits of many of those changes. Yet the speed at which we had to scale up turned out to be unexpectedly high. We worked from the assumption that after the corona crisis there would be structurally less business travel because of the rise of virtual meetings. We also thought that ‘flight shame’ would set in. But that did not turn out to be the case; flying remains popular. Meanwhile, we are growing back robustly. As a result, the pressure on the organization and the people working at Schiphol has greatly increased.’

Since the beginning of last year, as CHRO, you have also been a member of the executive committee, which indicates how heavily the airport’s board values a constructive people policy. Can you elucidate?
‘The Schiphol Group fulfills three roles. We are an employer with about 3,200 employees. We are also a client for services such as cleaning and security. And thirdly, Schiphol acts as a market manager and location holder who offers space for the activities of the airlines and the parties involved in ground handling, that is the servicing of the aircrafts while on the ground and parked at a terminal gate.
No matter which role is involved, we are always held accountable for the well-being of the people who work here. That is one of the reasons I find this the greatest HR job in the Netherlands. But it is also very complex. Because what do we know about the well-being of employees of the airlines and other companies at Schiphol? We usually do not have survey data and other data points of people employed by other companies. Yet we feel co-responsible for these employees, we want to know how they are doing and promote their well-being.
In recent years, Schiphol has therefore defined a fourth strategic pillar: quality of work, in addition to the three other pillars that form the core of the Schiphol strategy. Those other pillars are quality of the network, aimed at maintaining the hub function, and quality of living environment, or attention to residents. The third pillar is quality of service, which is about the passenger experience, including aspects such as clean toilets and fast baggage handling.
An important part of the newest pillar, quality of work, is employee well-being. We want everyone here to be able to do meaningful, healthy, and varied work, and ideally employees to have some fun, too.
The focus on well-being covers a wide range of aspects, such as terms and conditions of employment, labor relations and content of work. For example, we look at whether everyone has a collective bargaining agreement, whether wages are enough to live on, and whether schedules are not too heavy. We have reduced the number of boarding times from more than 70 to 14. Also, when we hire parties, we look at how they treat their employees when tendering. We try to reduce physical strain in baggage handling. To this end, we have introduced ‘co-bros’ in our baggage basements, collaborative robots that can help lift different types of baggage.’

Those baggage basements belong to you, but they are used by airlines and baggage handling companies. How can you promote the welfare of their employees if you have no contractual relationship with them?
‘There are now six parties that handle baggage at Schiphol. When there was no sector collective labor agreement, it was possible to compete on terms of employment. Now, that is no longer possible. We want to reduce the number of parties, and the quality of work will be part of the selection of the parties we award a concession to. It is more difficult to exert influence on airlines. KLM is an exception: it is a home carrier, which also handles its own baggage. I can easily enter discussions with them. But KLM also must compete internationally and does not want to be the only one facing higher prices for baggage handling.’

When it comes to ongoing contracts, such as those for security or cleaning: how do you promote employee welfare?
‘We have recently started organizing so-called social dialogue tables, where we sit at the table with employees, works council members of various parties and our own colleagues directly. The goal is to, with each other, identify themes for improvement which we need to tackle cooperatively. Consider topics such as talent pooling, variation in work, or improvements in scheduling. These social dialogue tables allow us to be in direct contact with the employees who do the real work. As a result, we receive valuable information and can strengthen the relationship with them. This makes it possible to adopt an approach that is conducive to the well-being of the employees concerned. What can we design, develop, and do to make that physical work less demanding?’

What about mental well-being? Schiphol has just been in the news because there is room for 50,000 additional flights this year. That could lead to additional mental pressure.
‘The number of extra flights has not yet been confirmed, but we do have capacity for extra flights. But indeed: more flights can lead to higher mental pressure. Especially during the peak rush early in the morning. This causes significant challenges, as a lot of work needs to be done in those few hours. We are in discussion with all parties about the peak to see if we can spread it more evenly through the day. That will be difficult, though, since Schiphol is a hub carrier: planes land, depart and return for multiple flights in the same day. This quickly creates a peak at the beginning of the day. We are in discussion with all parties about whether everyone has enough staff to do this properly.’

How do you try to stimulate the well-being of your direct employees? And that of other managers?
‘The top managers at Schiphol share knowledge and experiences. We organize knowledge sessions where we discuss themes together. For example, we currently have a leadership program in which we learn to briefly evaluate after meetings, including by assigning a number and a key word to each meeting. Such a debriefing contributes to psychological safety, and everyone leaves the meeting with a clear head. You prevent feelings of dissatisfaction from simmering.
Furthermore, personal attention is extremely important, especially when it comes to employees with young children. With those employees I pay extra attention to whether they manage to combine work and private life and whether they get enough sleep. That is also my most important advice to anyone who wants to stimulate the well-being of employees: try to really understand what moves them and what they need. Stand by that coffee machine and ask: How are things? How are you really doing?’

This interview was published in Management Scope 02 2024.

This article was last changed on 06-02-2024